By TIM TALLEYOKLAHOMA CITY (AP) â¿¿ Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and Oklahoma business leaders rolled out their legislative agenda for small businesses and manufacturers Tuesday, citing workforce development and sweeping changes to the state's workers' and unemployment compensation systems as their top priorities. Developed during a series of summits with small-business operators across the state last fall, Lamb said the legislative proposals will help remove obstacles that can prevent small businesses from thriving in the state. Lamb said 97.2 percent of all Oklahoma employers are small businesses. "Small business and small manufacturer owners are on the ground every day working hard to make Oklahoma strong," Lamb said. Fred Morgan, president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, said the summits gave business and elected leaders the opportunity to hear directly from Oklahoma business owners about their challenges. Morgan said 70 percent of his organization's members are small-business owners. "That's the backbone of the Oklahoma economy," Morgan said. "There are small-business issues that we need to address." Morgan said the State Chamber's top legislative priority this year is replacing the workers' compensation system, which adjudicates claims in an adversarial court system, with an administrative system that supporters say would reduce costs and speed up benefits to workers who are injured on the job. Lamb said Oklahoma's workers' compensation system is the nation's sixth-most expensive, but proposals to alter it have been met with resistance in past years. "Some people just have a problem with change, because it's change," Lamb said. Gov. Mary Fallin and leaders of both the House and Senate have said they support changes to the workers' compensation system, the lieutenant governor said. Other legislative priorities include increasing efforts to build a skilled workforce for the state and creating a student safety net to encourage those who do not finish high school or college to develop a skill or learn a trade.
Morgan said there are some employers in the state with unfilled jobs who cannot find skilled workers to fill them."It's a growing problem. It's a pressing problem," Morgan said. "What are our workforce needs in the next 20 years, and how are we going to meet those needs?" Chuck Prucha, president of the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance, said having a skilled workforce is critical to today's high-tech advanced manufacturing techniques. "There are over 4,000 manufacturers in the state of Oklahoma," Prucha said. "The importance of manufacturing in Oklahoma is substantial." Business leaders will also push economic development legislation to make Oklahoma more competitive and proposals to reign in fraud while lowering costs and increasing benefits in the unemployment compensation system, Lamb said. "As elected officials, we have the responsibility to remove any impediments to growth that stand in the way of a prosperous Oklahoma," Lamb said.